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The Great Depression.

The seven-hour series, "The Great Depression," produced by Blackside, Inc., and currently airing on most public television outlets, is probably the most important event of the television season. Yes, it's bigger than "NYPD Blue," bigger than the new Letterman, even bigger than Burt Reynolds and Loni Anderson's messy divorce.

"The Great Depression" brings into our living rooms undeniable pictures and voices from a time when impossible things happened all over America. It was a time when almost 1 million Californians voted for a democratic socialist alternative to business as usual; when ordinary working stiffs fought and died in the American streets for the right to organize unions; when Southwestern farmers idolized a bank robber; and when poor white and black Southerners forgot about Jim Crow and stood together for economic justice. And all of this was considerably less than a lifetime ago.

You remember Blackside. They're the folks who in 1986 set a new standard for documentary television with their series on the civil rights movement, 'Eyes on the Prize." "Eyes" was a monumental undertaking. It brought together hundreds of interviews and fresh, newly unearthed film footage and almost magical use of music.

The result was a monument, an upbeat version of the Vietnam Wall, that cemented the civil rights movement's place in the American mythos. "Eyes" put the movement on a par with, say, World War II, among the events defining America's democratic commitments. 'Eyes' also helped revive the spirit of struggle in a new generation of black youth. Many of today's hip-hoppers learned about their ancestors in the Black Panther Party from "Eyes on the Prize II," which covered the years 1965 to 1985. "Eyes" also inspired a still-running stream of popular civil rights stories in film and literature.

After collecting all the accolades for "Eyes on the Prize," Henry Hampton decided to tell an even bigger American story, one that transcended race and region and was filled with messy economic implications and ambiguities. The story of the Depression is the story of the latter two-thirds of this tired old century. Our entire period of postwar prosperity was mid-wifed and nurtured by the economic and governmental institutions built in reaction to the Depression.

Now that the Great Prosperity has run its course, we can look to the Depression for lessons on bow to cope with economic change, declining living standards and rampant inequality.

The series takes a storyteller's approach to the 1930s. It starts with the assertion that it was a time when America was "slipping away" but when "our parents and grandparents found the courage to fight their way out." The series then takes specific stories of struggle and makes them emblematic of the larger issues that arose on America's march through that grim decade.

Again, as with "Eyes on the Prize," the quality of the work in "The Great Depresion" is a cut above anything else on non-fiction television. The research is thorough and impeccable. The presentation is engaging, especially to the eye.

The WPA social realist aesthetic provides a natural visual touch-stone for the series. The Blackside producers use it to make the look of the series into another storytelling element, from the line drawing of down-and-outers that goes with the opening credits to the recurring long archival shots of the passing countryside from the inside of a railroad boxcar.

The interviews are poignant and to the point, seamlessly fusing emotion and narrative momentum with analysis and information. Despite the difficulties of visualizing a story six decades distant, the series moves quickly and fluidly, even when it must resort to still photos.

To my mind, the heart of the series is found in episodes four and five ("We Have a Plan" and "Mean Things Happening"). In "We Have a Plan," the story of socialist author Upton Sinclair's 1934 run for governor of California is told. Sinclair's EPIC plan to End Poverty in California called for seizing unused factories and fields (and film studios) and turning them over to the unemployed to run as self-managing cooperatives.

Sinclair won the Democratic nomination and received 900,000 votes against the Republican incumbent. In the process he scared the pants off California's business elites, and lit one very big fire under the seats of President Roosevelt and the New Dealers.

In "Mean Things Happening" we get the story of starvation and misery in the rural South, and of the inter-racial Southern Tenant Farmers Union that arose to combat it. Then the episode moves north to recount the bloody events around the birth of the Steel workers union.

This segment is especially distinguished by an interview with the son of a 1930s steel magnate. The son is himself still an unreconstructed economic royalist, and he inadvertently gives viewers a letter-perfect picture of what went wrong with America in the 1930s.

"The Great Depression" is not without its failings. It lacks a specific guiding analytical perspective on what the Depression meant in American history. Instead, it sticks with the stories. And these stories, filled with desperation and struggle, are certainly compelling enough one by one. But the canvas of a continent and a decade is so huge that the attempt to take it all in can leave us rudderless and flailing

Similarly, the series refuses to make explicit the parallels between the unemployment, trashed living standards and broken dreams of the 1930s, and the similar, if less dramatic, woes of the 1990s. Today's depression is a slow leak, not a big bust. Instead of crashing off the economic precipice, we're sinking into a bog.

But the 1990s, like the 1930s, are a time when the old presumptions, definitions and ways of doing business are no longer working for the broad majority. We live in a time when ordinary people in large numbers again feel demeaned and dehumanized by their inability to make a living, own a home and support a family in a land of supposedly boundless opportunity. And I suspect that the 1990s are, again, a time when Americans will have to rise above pride of place or birth or race and stand shoulder to shoulder in battles pitting popular sovereignty against economic royalism.

This suggestion is often bubbling between the lines in the narration of "The Great Depression," but it is never quite stated. All of that said, the point remains that "The Great Depression" is necessary viewing for today's Americans, especially younger ones.

The past 12 years have tragically constricted our sense of possibilities in America. But we are now at a changing of the political and generational guard. Perhaps the best thing we can do at this moment is take a deep breath and look back at the time from which our late 20th century America was born, in blood and struggle, and amid the clamor of still-vibrant revolutionary voices.
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Author:Collum, Danny Duncan
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Article Type:Television Program Review
Date:Nov 12, 1993
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